Director Robert Eggers’ newest film immerses viewers in the world of vikings with a classic revenge story.
Revenge is a classic motif throughout all of storytelling. The “Iliad,” “Hamlet,” Batman — all these stories use a murderous event to trigger a wave of retaliatory violence. Robert Eggers’ new film “The Northman” adapts this motif from centuries-old Danish lore.
The film tells the story of Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård), a prince seeking revenge for the usurpation of his father’s throne. The plot adapts a story from Saxo Grammaticus’ history of the Danes — the same source Shakepseare used as inspiration for “Hamlet.” While Eggers doesn’t include the same existential complexity that the Bard does, much more of the original Danish folklore is preserved. The result is a film that doesn’t stray much from its primeval archetypes, but still manages to grab the viewer for all of its 137-minute runtime.
Those put off by the more experimental elements of “The Lighthouse” will be pleased to see Eggers return to a mostly straightforward and thematically transparent plot. The set-up is simple and the ending is conclusive. Still, something does feel lost when comparing the film to the radically unique dynamic of “The Lighthouse.”
The violence in “The Northman” is brutal — and rightly so. At its heart, it’s an action film, constantly building to the next slaughter. Eggers never lets his film be oversaturated by this violence. The brilliant pacing of the film lends these climactic scenes a satisfying weight.
The cast of “The Northman” was perfectly selected. Skarsgård’s hulking physique and gravelly voice make him utterly convincing as a ruthless warrior. Anya Taylor-Joy, previously seen in Eggers’ “The Witch,” makes a return as a similarly mystical companion to the warrior. Supporting performances from Willem Defoe and Björk breathe life into an otherwise simplistic slew of characters.
Eggers’ previous feature films are characterized by a meticulous attention to historical detail, and that legacy is mostly upheld. While there is not a specialized dialect used throughout the film, like in “The Witch” and “The Lighthouse,” the set and costume design allow total immersion into the world of vikings. Many scenes are set against the vast Icelandic mountains and create the sense of epic scale vital to the story.
The scale of the landscape is contrasted by the relatively small size of the clans Amleth navigates. When the warrior finds his target after years of absence, the village he rules feels almost pathetic in comparison to the grand landscapes it inhabits. Amleth’s one-against-all struggle is more believable when his enemy is a shambling noble and his limited guard.
Eggers’ movies are all about isolation, to some degree. Amleth’s only true companion throughout the film is a romantic interest, and even this relationship is secondary to his drive for revenge. It’s a much more one-dimensional character than the director’s previous efforts, or previous interpretations of the myth, for that matter.
Overall, while I’m a bit disappointed by the lack of imagination in “The Northman,” especially in comparison with the director’s previous films, it’s still a near-perfect action movie.
“The Northman” is currently showing in Circle Cinema.